By Ramsey Scott
Wyoming Tribune Eagle
Via Wyoming News Exchange
CHEYENNE — The Senate suspended its rules Wednesday and filed four new spending bills as it and the House try to bridge about a $70 million difference in their two proposed budgets.
Senate leadership described it as an effort to ensure the state funds critical needs, including education, in case an agreement can't be reached between the two chambers.
But the move to introduce spending bills after the filing deadline has passed, and in the midst of budget negotiations, could be read as the Senate trying to force the House's hand. Currently, the House's budget, including the external cost adjustment for schools, is about $70 million higher than the Senate.
One of the four bills, Senate File 166, is the appropriation authorization for the other three bills. Those bills would allocate money toward the external cost adjustment for education funding, money for commercial air service, the Department of Health and the Department of Family Services.
Senate President Drew Perkins, R-Casper, said the four bills weren't an indication the Senate and House weren't going to be able to reach an agreement on the state budget. Instead, it was merely a precaution to ensure that no matter what happened in negotiations, the critical needs of the state were going to be financed.
"If the Senate and House can't come to an agreement on the budget bill, then those (bills) provide a method to take care of a few items that we can't leave Cheyenne without resolving," Perkins said. "It was just coming down and trying to say if we can't come to an agreement on the budget, we've got to have a way to make sure that there's a few things that just have to happen or the state will really be hurt."
Sens. Eli Bebout, R-Riverton, and Mike Gierau, D-Jackson, are sponsors on all four bills, and both said the move is about making sure the critical needs identified in the supplemental budget would be funded. Both said they thought the negotiations between the House and Senate would end up without a resolution.
A big portion of the $70 million difference is in education funding. The House increased the external cost adjustment for schools, which helps defray the effect of inflation on the education budget formula, by about $21 million over what was included by the JAC. The Senate cut down its external cost adjustment formula, which resulted in about $9 million less.
Perkins reiterated a point he made last week that supplemental budgets are for emergencies or unforeseen needs. The Legislature passed a two-year budget last year, and the items he and his colleagues pulled out for separate bills Wednesday are the critical items that need to be addressed.
But Perkins said he still believed the two chambers would eventually reach agreement.
"I think we'll work this out. I really do. It's part of the process," Perkins said. "But at the end of the day, if we can't come to terms, there are four things that just have to get done this session with respect to the budget. But I have every faith and confidence that our conference committees will work together, and Speaker Harshman and I will help where needed and we'll get to a resolution."
Speaker of the House Steve Harshman, R-Casper, said he didn't want to guess at any message the Senate might be communicating by passing new budget bills this late in the process. He emphasized his belief that a compromise was within reach and didn't think the new bills would make it far in the Senate.
Harshman said that if the bills did make it out of the Senate and to the House, he wouldn't suspend rules in his chamber for them to have a chance at a hearing after deadline.
"We are very close. I think sometimes people try to grab a negotiating position by emphasizing their differences. And I'm trying to emphasize how close we are," Harshman said. "We're going to honor the process, and they are, too. It's just a form of communication. I wouldn't read too much into it. I'm not worried at all.”